Young Americans seem content to be faces in crowd, rather than face of golf

Young Americans seem content to be faces in crowd, rather than face of golf

Bubba Watson, 32, has three career PGA Tour wins.
Robert Beck/SI

I once thought the decline of American golf was just a rumor, a ghost story told at the Ryder Cup. You’ve heard the story, right? Tiger and Phil and the boys get creamed, the lords of Europe sing and dance, and the game of golf prepares for a new world order.

Then we’d get to Augusta National and watch Tiger and Phil swap green jackets and everyone would pronounce the state of golf in the U.S. as strong as Manila hemp. Well, a funny thing has happened on the way to American golfing hegemony. International players have won the last four majors (Say hello to Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel). International players have nabbed the last four Players championships (Come on down Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Tim Clark and K.J. Choi). And the latest bad news for the red, white and blue? This generation of American golfers may not be ready to reverse the trend any time soon.

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Bubba Watson said he was not ready to be the face of American golf, despite his three PGA Tour wins, 32 years of age and oodles of game. “I hope the Tour is not going to bank on me being their poster child,” Watson said. “I think it’s going to be harder to dominate, like we used to see, like Tiger has dominated for so many years.”

It was an honest answer, but it spoke to a mindset that seems prevalent among young American golfers, an acceptance of “good” rather than a full out sprint toward “exceptional.” Why wouldn’t Bubba want the Tour to put his face on tournament brochures and media guides? Why wouldn’t Bubba’s competitiveness prompt him to shout, “Darn right, I want to be the face of American golf!”

It brings to mind a scene from the 1992 film “Glengarry Glen Ross,” in which Alec Baldwin is berating a group of salesmen — Jack Lemmon and Ed Harris among them — for their inability to get customers “to sign on the line which is dotted.” It is a tense and memorable scene, one that stays with the viewer long after the screen goes dark. I would love to see Baldwin get a hold of Watson and a few of the other young Americans for a conversation about golf instead of sales.

Baldwin would fix them with an icy stare and implore them to embrace the challenge of being the face of American golf. “Are you gonna take it?” Baldwin would ask, as he does in the movie. “Are you man enough to take it?”

I’m not sure why Bubba said what he said, or why Americans have stopped winning major championships, but I do have a theory that relates to both. I think the Tiger Woods scandal — and his subsequent fall — has affected this generation of American golfers in ways we don’t fully understand. Tiger was the face of American golf and more. He had it all — the game, the fame, the riches, the beautiful family — and look where that got him?

Even before the scandal, many of Tiger’s peers said they would not want to change places with him, not even for a day. They had a good enough life racking up top 10s and the occasional victory without the hassle of endless media interviews, autograph requests and the pressures of being No. 1.

Maybe this is what Bubba meant by not wanting to be the face of American golf, seeing the toll it takes. Perhaps Bubba and his peers think it’s safer being a face in the crowd.